When someone asks, “Why did you laugh?” the stock answer is “Because it was funny!” Any further explanation is often pointless. Finally you just had to be there.
Writers are told up front that humor is subjective . . . what’s funny to one person might not be humorous at all to the next. When someone takes a tumble one friend might call 911 while the other doubles over laughing. Thus the popularity of America’s Funniest Videos and slapstick comedy in general. So, writer, if your amusing article is not appreciated by the contest judge or editor, you should keep your knickers in the untwisted position . . . they just didn’t get it.
The Center for Brain Science at Harvard University has conducted studies on how humor affects the brain. For instance, they put volunteers in an MRI machine and tracked their brain activity while they watched an episode of Seinfeld. They found that “getting a joke uses the same part of the brain that is used to solve complex problems. There is a link between intelligence and and a sense of humor.”
Infants will laugh at a rubber-faced comedian or a clown in a prat fall. Their brains don’t have to be very well developed to get that sort of humor. And we laugh at slapstick, too. It’s one of those things we do because we don’t have to use many brain cells to enjoy it. Like reading a dime novel or watching an inane show on TV. But stand-up comedy, the one-liners or the play on words required an altogether different side of the brain.
Scott Weems new book, Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, (Basic Books of New York) is an “investigation into the science of humor and laughter.” I wouldn’t presume to review a book I haven’t read, but it sounds like Dr. Weems (doctorate in cognitive neuroscience) has done his homework well, as did the scientists at Harvard. By the way, Weems is from North Little Rock.
Back to the question of why we laugh. E.B. White said, “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”